A few weeks ago, Adwoa Aboah experienced what she describes as “a sombre moment”. “I was at my mum and dad’s, clearing out my childhood room,” she says, her voice a little shaky. “I was going through all these old Vogues I had kept, and I was like … ‘Why did I do that? What was I looking at … who was I looking at?’ Because no one in these magazines looks like me.” Despite signing with the giant modelling agency Storm at 16, Aboah’s self-esteem as a teenager and into her 20s was, she says, “so low. I was on this trajectory of really wanting to be someone else. I couldn’t count on my hands any models who looked like me who were killing it. Obviously there was Jourdan Dunn, and Naomi Campbell, but … ” she pauses, sighs. “I didn’t have the emotional intelligence, nor the language, to articulate why I wasn’t doing well, why I wasn’t in the places that I thought should have been an option for me. Why wasn’t I being supported by British publications? I was like: ‘Is it me? What’s wrong with me?’ Not in a kind of self-pitying way but … I just didn’t understand.”
Now 29, Aboah is one of Britain’s most recognisable and successful models, as likely to be seen endorsing Dior or Burberry as H&M or Gap. She was named model of the year by the British Fashion Council in 2017 and, in the same year, memorably featured on the cover of Edward Enninful’s first issue of British Vogue, a vision of retro cool in a patterned headscarf and masses of blue eyeshadow. She’s also an activist, having founded the organisation Gurls Talk – which educates young women on topics including feminism, race, sex and body image – in 2015, and now she has her first regular acting role in the new series of Netflix’s Top Boy, one of the coolest shows on TV. It’s hard to believe that Aboah ever felt like a misfit and, worse still, thought that it was somehow her fault.
In fact, the Londoner always had the kind of star quality that marked her out as one to watch, if not by fashion’s gatekeepers, then by those in the know. Her barefaced beauty – complete with a constellation of freckles – made her something of an It girl in the early 2010s (ie, the Daily Mail started publishing articles about her tattoos). That role grew when she shaved off her previously relaxed copper hair into a gamine buzzcut in 2015. Aboah was deemed “unconventionally beautiful” by many in the media, perhaps a subtle way of saying that she did not fit Eurocentric beauty standards; for many more, she was the representation they had been yearning for.
However, there were several years when it felt as if her career had stalled. “It’s a weird one,” Aboah says, dialling in as she hotfoots it from central London to the airport, a place where she spends much of her time (she is based between the UK and LA). “With the conversations that we’ve had since around race and diversity, we understand what was going on. But back then, I was like: ‘I don’t get it.’ I started at the same time as Cara [Delevingne], maybe a little after Edie [Campbell], but I hadn’t really been given my moment. With my British Vogue cover, my career kind of took off. But I’d been modelling for a long time. I’d been waiting in the hope of getting my chance.”
Today, Aboah’s shaved head is gone, replaced by cornrows that cut across her scalp in entrancingly neat, diagonal lines. Even so, she remains instantly recognisable, as much for her face – flanked by ears adorned from top to bottom with gold rings and precious trinkets – as her west London drawl. The daughter of Camilla Lowther, a British model turned influential talent agency boss, and Charles Aboah, who is from Ghana, once described as London’s go-to location scout for editorial shoots, Aboah grew up in Notting Hill, immersed in the fashion business. Her younger sister, Kesewa, is an artist. Much has been written about her family’s privilege (in a recent interview, the Lowthers’ ancestral home was brought up, to which Aboah, seemingly wearily, replied she would “have to look that up”). She was educated at Millfield school in Somerset, where current annual fees for boarding stand at around £40,000, and she has spoken frequently about her difficulties there – relaxing her hair to fit in with the white, straight-haired masses, but ending up with something that resembled, in her words, “the end of a broom”. She began using drugs heavily as a teen, and today she describes it as a “deeply unhappy” period.
On graduating from Brunel University in 2013, she co-founded a casting agency, AAMØ, before moving into modelling. But despite her connections, doors remained closed to her, and repeated rejections hit her hard. “I think I went into it with a rose-tinted idea of what it could be,” she says. “Because of my mum being in the fashion industry, and because I knew everyone, people probably assumed that I was going to get these big jobs. But the industry was so different then.” Besides, she says, she didn’t feel as if she had much support: “One would hope that you were in a team where they really believed in you.” – In 2015, she departed Storm for Tess Management.
While her recent bedroom clearout was difficult, reminding her of the rejections of her early career, Aboah says it was also “enlightening”, emphasising for her just how far fashion has come in a short space of time, in terms of embracing diversity. Of course, British Vogue is just one part of that world, but it is a big part – the aspirational “style bible” that, for generations, drip-fed teens like the young Aboah with images of mostly white, often stick-thin models and impossibly expensive clothes. When she left the magazine in 2017, former editor Alexandra Shulman told the Guardian that she had offered Aboah a Vogue cover but Aboah had turned her down. Shulman also wondered if Aboah “maybe … knew she was going to get [Enninful’s first] cover.”
I ask Aboah whether she remembers it that way. She “hmms” for a second, before saying that she “didn’t pay much attention” to Shulman’s comments. “Someone sent me the piece. She said something like I was the best kind of Black girl … I can’t even remember how she worded it, it was something quite weird. [Shulman called her “the perfect mixture of mixed race, sort of posh Notting Hill royalty … the perfect cover star.”] Absolutely no shade to her as an editor, but [Enninful’s cover] made sense. It felt like a new beginning. I wanted to be part of that.” Over email, Enninful – a friend of Aboah’s – has only the highest praise for her, telling me he wanted to “highlight the best of Britain, in all of its unique, diverse and multitalented glory. Adwoa represented all of those facets for me … to see this Black British woman leading the way in my industry while also drawing attention to important social issues was really inspiring.”
The cover came after a new beginning for Aboah herself. After spells in rehab and, in 2014, a suicide attempt that left her in a coma for four days, she took time out of the industry, getting treatment for the depression and addiction problems that had lingered since her teens. (In a 2017 video interview with her mother, Camilla, Aboah describes not feeling able to share her depression with her family; Camilla admits that the family were “all in denial … until you tried to kill yourself”). Recovery and getting sober led her to work with nonprofit organisations, before founding her own in 2015.
“People think Gurls Talk came later, when my career took off, but it was definitely birthed from the rock bottom that I’d been at, and the support that I’d been given,” Aboah says. “I’d been given tools for how to be honest for the first time. I was looking at things I’d been too scared to look at.” Alongside global events that, pre-pandemic, took place everywhere from Italy to Ghana, Gurls Talk now produces a podcast in which Aboah has “fierce female chat” and candid conversations about mental health and wellbeing (guests have included novelists Bernardine Evaristo and Lisa Taddeo; activists Soma Sara and Janaya Future Khan; and fellow model Emily Ratajkoswki). With Gurls Talk, she says she finally “found her purpose”, converting her trauma into something meaningful.
A few days before we speak, a new report says that girls’ mental health in the UK is “on a precipice”, with 11-year-old girls 30% more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than boys. Aboah says it’s “terrifying”, and we talk briefly about teens, online bullying, and the reactive nature of social media where “people word-vomit things they might regret”, before she admits that these things consume her, too. “I’m turning 30 this year, and I don’t know about you, but sometimes … I mean – my behaviour is so toxic on social media. I have to take a backseat and be like: ‘The way I’m comparing myself with other people isn’t healthy.’ It can be the weirdest things … suddenly you’re worrying about the fact that – obviously I’m being silly here – your ears aren’t small enough. Even now, during London Fashion Week, it’s like: ‘I’m not doing the shows; I should be doing the shows.’ It’s like, ‘No, you’re doing something amazing, you’re getting this moment to be in this TV show.’ We put so much pressure on ourselves. So I can’t even imagine what it must be like, growing up now. It’s very obvious with the information out there that no young girl should be on social media.” As for her own social media posts, they lean more towards the artfully detached and carefree – sure, there are glossy magazine shoots on her Instagram grid, but there are also snaps of her wearing Minnie Mouse ears at Disneyland and, recently, a phallic cactus.
After the murder of George Floyd, and a renewed energy around the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Aboah found her conversations on her Gurls Talk podcast getting “a lot deeper. Everyone had so much to say, and everyone was going through such personal experiences, growth and sadness.” It also led to a second Vogue cover, this time alongside Marcus Rashford, shot in the footballer’s garden in Manchester, for an issue spotlighting “faces of hope”. It was a huge moment – and one she almost turned down. At the time, Aboah says, she “didn’t think it was my place to be that person. I think it’s because I hadn’t really delved into race and my feelings around it, and what I had been through. My mum’s white, my dad’s Black, and there had been a lot of confusion personally as to how I felt about it all. And, actually, it was great.” There’s a sense of gratitude in her voice as she describes “championing the Black community … I’m really happy that I did take that opportunity, because I am very much part of that community. I am a Black woman. I have a lot of things to say, which I hadn’t had the confidence to speak about.”
Suddenly, Aboah felt she could make her voice heard. “When people said, ‘It’s not as bad here in the UK,’ others were standing up and saying, ‘It is. There aren’t guns, we aren’t being shot at, but it’s definitely here.’” Even so, there was discomfort mixed in with the epiphanies. She had, she says, “a full-on identity crisis. It was a mad time, and we were all having to look at ourselves. Within the realm of fashion, for example, I had this new confidence. I was like: ‘I’m not going to tolerate someone doing my hair again who doesn’t understand Black hair.’ Not because I’m a diva, but because it’s not right.”
Aboah had another realisation over lockdown, when she decided that if she wanted to become an actor, it was now or never (she previously had a bit part in the 2017 big-screen anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson). Her voice fizzes with excitement at the mention of Top Boy, the east London-set drama that was resurrected by Netflix in 2019, six years after being cancelled by Channel 4. Executive produced by Canadian rapper Drake, the reboot upped the budget, chucking in a who’s who of UK musicians including Dave and Little Simz, as well as bringing back original cast members such as Ashley Walters and Kano. The latest series ups the production sheen even further, with diversions into the drug trade in Spain and Morocco straight out of Narcos. “It’s mad, to be quite honest,” Aboah laughs. “I cannot even begin to tell you how much I wanted this role. I definitely sit on the more obsessive side of things in terms of my character – I’m obsessed with manifesting. I auditioned about three or four times and I was overwhelmed with how much I wanted it. It was so out of my comfort zone, and such a challenge.”
Aboah is keen to stress that this is something she has wanted for a long time. “At school, I wasn’t passing with straight As or anything like that,” she says. “So I really leaned into my more creative side.” While experiments with the guitar proved unfruitful, “theatre was my first love. I was shy and nervous at boarding school. I was away from home, and away from my family and friends. Another girl had seen me sitting by myself all the time – she was like, ‘This girl is quite depressed.’ So she asked me if I wanted to audition for the school play. We’re still friends now.”
Aboah was part of the National Youth Theatre and did a degree in drama. Rather than being seduced by the bright lights of the modelling industry, it seems she just wasn’t in the right headspace for acting. “After university, I didn’t really have a good head on my shoulders – my work ethic wasn’t necessarily that great.” She was, she says, “a bit distracted … by partying and all sorts of things. But before Covid, I knew that I really wanted to give it a chance. I got an agent and started doing acting classes.”
In Top Boy, she plays Becks, a love interest for Jasmine Jobson’s tough-as-nails gang member Jaq. It’s not a big role, but it is a memorable one, as the decidedly middle-class addition to a show set in a working-class world. There’s even a scene where another character ponders why Becks doesn’t tap up the bank of mum and dad for a bigger flat. As someone in a heterosexual relationship, did the prospect of portraying a same-sex couple – and one that attracts negative attention in the series – faze her? “I think the women’s storylines stand alone, away from what’s going on with the men,” she says. “You really get to know these women. By no means do I think I understand homophobia, but I was able to talk to friends in the queer community and get an understanding of what they’ve had to deal with. And going back to what we’ve been speaking about, I understand discrimination. I hope that I’ve been able to tell the story authentically.”
What has it been like to engage with a series based on a world so different from her own background? “London is filled with so many different people,” she says. “It’s easy to say that we’re all segregated, and none of us mix. But living in west London, I’ve been around different types of people my whole entire life. I might have gone to private school, but I’ve been brought up around a multifaceted community. I don’t think I’ve ever felt intimidated by being from a different world.”
Aboah has to catch her flight, but before she logs off, she tells me that she is already “on cloud nine” at the prospect of showing what she can do as an actor. A few days after we speak, she posts a childhood photo on Instagram – possibly one dug out in her bedroom clearout. Unlike most people’s childhood snaps, it was published in the triannual fashion magazine Pop, and shot by the photographer Alice Hawkins. In it, Aboah is dressed smartly, a serious look on her face and her hair in braids, younger but in many ways identical. Alongside it runs the caption: “By popular demand. Shy and 12 years old … Haven’t changed at all …” Aboah’s life has changed since those days, and yet in many ways she’s stayed the same, as the world has changed around her. The picture reminds me of something she told me about her dad: “He turned to me, years ago, and said: ‘I was just waiting for you to realise what you are capable of achieving.’” Binning her old magazines might have been a wrench, but it reminded her that she was always on the right track.
• The new season of Top Boy is available now on Netflix.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org